The Mind of a Bully: How it begins - Part 1

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bullying can cause long-term psychological problems for victims. So, why do kids continue engaging in the harmful behavior?

Experts say one of the main reasons kids bully others is because it makes them feel powerful.

“We live in a society and a culture that values power and those in power,” said Clark Power, a Notre Dame professor and bullying expert. “We value success, we value money and possessions. So, when you have these things, you feel like you’re on top of the world.”

Tony Garascia, clinical director of Samaritan Counseling Center, says it’s normal for kids to experiment with power. But, some use it in a harmful way – to bully others.

“What that means is power over someone, like dominance,” he said. “Or, power of exclusion, like not including someone. Power of name calling or telling someone that they can't do something.”

If people haven’t experienced bullying themselves, Garascia says it’s likely they’ve witnessed it happening to others. And, the emotional trauma victims experience can be devastating.

“I would say I ask usually in the first session with adults whether they've been teased or bullied in middle school,” he said. “And, I would say about 30 to 35 percent of adults tell me yes. And, they still have memories and sometimes some pretty deep scars.”

While it’s natural to empathize with the victims, experts say behind every bully is a story, too. One that often explains why they choose to torment others.

“It's not so different from other things we name as crimes,” said Saundra Westra, team leader of child and adolescent outpatient therapy at Oaklawn in South Bend. “There’s always a story on both sides. It’s harder to find sympathy or empathy for those who are hurting people. But, almost always we find they have their own abuse history.”

Oaklawn has a lot of victims and bullies come through its doors for treatment.

In order to help, Westra says they start by getting a complete history from the child, which gives them insight into what contributes to the bullying behavior.

“If children have been raised in an environment, which can be home, neighborhood, school, where violence is how you deal with things, that’s likely how they’ll deal with other people,” she said.

The cruel habit of bullying is one that can be hard to break.

In some cases, it’s the only way a child knows how to deal with others.

That’s why Power says, like victims, bullies deserve compassion, too.

“We can overreact and say, ‘Oh, this bully’s a terrible person,’” Power said. “The bully’s not a terrible person, the bully’s a child, too, and is trying to make sense of the world.”

Because of the psychological issues many bullies are dealing with, changing their behavior can be a difficult, lengthy process. And, experts say it takes the combined efforts of schools, kids and parents to make it happen.

In part two of her series, Barbara Harrington will explain how you can help address the bullying epidemic in your community.